Soccer was never my game. But a recent visit to Berlin, just before the World Cup games began, showed me the electric excitement generated by a sport I knew nothing about. For most of the rest of the world, the World Cup is the World Series, the Super Bowl and the NBA finals writ large. Watching several games with Latin-American waiters and bartenders back in Washington even taught me a few intricacies of the game.
Nevertheless, for an American, picking a team to root for is easier based on the culture and politics of the country rather than the country's team. Having family and friends in Germany made it easy for me to root for Germany in its first-round 4 to 0 victory over Costa Rica. My daughter telephoned from Berlin to report that every time the German team scored, the windows rattled in the apartments and shops above the park where she sat with my twin granddaughters.
But my favorite first-round game was between Mexico and Iran, played in Nuremberg. Anybody playing Iran was my team. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the nutty but dangerous president of Iran, the denier of the Holocaust and sworn enemy of America and the West, naturally roots for Iran. That was more than enough to make Mexico my team. Unfair though this might be to the Iranian players, who may not like their president any more than I do, Iran became if only for a moment the Dallas Cowboys for a long-suffering Washington Redskins fan.
And it's not just me. A crowd of more than 1,200 persons, including prominent German politicians and Jewish leaders living in Germany, used the occasion to protest the Iranian president's denial of the Holocaust and his implied threat to "wipe Israel off the map." President Ahmadinejad told the German newsmagazine der Spiegel on the eve of the games: "If there really had been a Holocaust, Israel ought to be located in Europe, not in Palestine."
Germany has done more than any other European country to confront its anti-Semitic past, and the Germans are particularly sensitive to the Iranian president's over-the-top rhetoric. "We're clearly showing that Bavaria, Germany and the entire Western world stand firmly on the side of Israel and its Jewish citizens," Gunther Beckstein, Bavaria's interior minister and a member of the conservative Christian Social Union party, told the protesting crowd before the Mexico-Iran match. President Ahmadinejad's threatening language had put him outside the boundaries of the civilized world.